The Role of Victims in School Violence Incidents

In general, the Threat Assessment Strategy also examines the role of the victim in order to try and identify a specific reason, if any, why one or more particular victims were chosen. While some active shooter cases have been deemed random, with the perpetrator apparently not targeting any specific individual victims, it is common that most school shooting victims are a peer, if not exactly an acquaintance, of the shooter (Bonanno and Levinson, 2014).

One of the major characteristics of rampage shootings, according to Newman, Fox, Roth, Mehta, and Harding (2004), is that the target is generally symbolic in nature. In other words, what matters in these instances is not exacting revenge on particular people, but making a statement with violence—it may not matter who the ultimate victims are.This is said to be in contrast to other types of inner-city school violence, which often involves two or more individuals with specific grievances toward one another (McGee and DeBernardo, 1999; Casella, 2001; Kimmel and Mahler, 2003; Newman et al., 2004; Muschert, 2007). In this sense, many school shootings may be similar to workplace mass killings, which also often include a “symbolic” target.

There is still a debate over whether certain individuals or groups have been targeted as potential victims by school shooters. Cullen (2009) argued that prior news accounts misreported the “myth” that the Columbine shooters specifically targeted minorities and jocks. Furthermore, some of the most groundbreaking and prolific scholars of school rampage (Newman et al., 2004; Muschert, 2007) explicitly define the phenomenon, at least in part, by victims being chosen randomly or symbolically. That, too, is the conclusion reached by Bonanno and Levinson (2014).Yet, Madfis (2014) found that the students who were deterred from carrying out a school shooting had planned to kill certain peers whom the shooter felt had slighted him or her in the past. Some students planning a school shooting constructed a kill list, but some also had the names of students on a “Do Not Kill” list. Some students planning a shooting also targeted symbolic groups, such as “Goths,” “Punks," “Preps,” or “Gays” (Madfis, 2017).

The Threat Assessment Strategy as a Management Process

Bowlin and his colleagues point out that

Threat assessment is not a final product, but the beginning of the management process. It guides a course of action to mitigate a threat of potential violence; merely identifying that someone is of moderate or higher concern, without developing a management strategy, does not complete this process.

(Bowlin et al., 2017, p. 4)

It is within this process that individual school safety strategies are established. Examining the roles of the school, parent, and law enforcement helps to establish a reliable threat assessment process.

Data collection is a key component to establishing a triage process for a standardized risk assessment procedure that clearly defines violent risk factors associated with perpetrators of school violence (Barzman, Griffey, Ni, Warren, and Mossman, 2016). Once the risk is assessed and prioritized, the stakeholders then become involved to address the threat from their own perspectives.

As the roles of the stakeholders are defined, and their individual responsibilities identified and clarified, the school environment then becomes the most important component when implementing a strong safety strategy, mainly because the violent act will most likely occur there.

As the violence in our schools increases—and it is to be noted that near the end of 2019, it was found that there were 11 school shootings in the United States for 2019 (Bosman, 2019)—organized threat assessment is the means by which these violent acts can be minimized.

Violence Prediction and Psychological Constructs of Violence

Can we accurately predict when someone will be violent? This question and answer remain at the center of discourse over the use of violence threat assessments in a law enforcement operational context.The term “accurately” is generally not associated with predictive violence models; however, prediction of future violence remains a necessity in the United States’justice and mental health systems.

The practice of sentencing a convicted criminal to death relies in part on the aggravating factor of future dangerousness (Fairfax-Columbo and DeMatteo,2017). Before the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, administering the death penalty was left to the discretion of the jury. The court ruled that “unguided” jury discretion in administering the death penalty was unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment against discrimination (Furman v. Georgia, 1972). Following Furman u Georgia, states turned to the discipline of psychology to provide the necessary expert guidance to capital case juries on future dangerousness.

In mental health care, assessment of the risk of violence has gained wide acceptance in both forensic psychiatry and clinical psychiatry with a greater focus on short-term and medium-term prediction (Lidz, Mulvey, and Gardner, 1993; Johnson, Kuhlmann, and EPCAT Group, 2000). Predictions of future violence in the criminal justice and mental health contexts share one crucial factor; the subject of the prediction has undergone a formal diagnostic process that has determined the probability of future dangerousness.

In the police operational context, violence prediction has not gained widespread acceptance as a proactive policing strategy—nor should it. The likelihood of probability errors leading to civil rights violations is high, and the dynamic nature of policing precludes police use of violence risk assessments. However, if the focus is on prevention—not prediction and multidisciplinary caretaking interventions concerning punishment—police and analysts’ use of threat assessment tools to prevent a specific type of violence is possible. The FBI’s National Center for the Analysis ofViolent Crime recently concluded: “Engaging a multidisciplinary threat assessment and management team is perhaps the single most important thing a community or organization can do to further its prevention efforts” (Amman et al., 2017, p. 82). Before we introduce the concept of threat assessment in a law enforcement operational context, we must first differentiate between the psychological constructs of affective and targeted violence.

Targeted violence differs from affective violence in that targeted violence is not spontaneous. In contemporary threat assessment literature, targeted or goal-directed violence is defined as predatory, intended, instrumental violence that is the result of a discernable process of planning and preparation, often accompanied by certain behavioral indicators (Meloy, Hart, and Hoffmann, 2014).Targeted violence lacks impulsivity and emotion, and the element of financial gain is not a primary motivator. In contrast to targeted violence, affective violence, sometimes called impulsive, impromptu, emotional, or reactive violence, is a spontaneous act of violence that occurs in response to a proximal provocation or perceived threat (Meloy, 2006).

Threat assessment as a law enforcement methodology to prevent targeted violence was advanced by research conducted by the U.S. Secret Service on violence against public figures (Fein and Vossekuil, 2000). In 1999, the Secret Service published its findings in the Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP). The ECSP examined 83 perpetrators who attempted or completed attacks against federal political figures, celebrities, and heads of major corporations from 1949 to 1997 (Fein and Vossekuil, 1999).The ECSP, in part, concluded that constructing an attacker profile was not useful or legitimate; however, the authors noted commonality in certain behaviors across the sample that could identify clustered or accelerating levels of risk. Other law enforcement agencies credited with advancing the use of threat assessment investigations include the Los Angeles Police Department, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the FBI.

Threat assessment was ultimately defined as a “set of investigative and operational techniques that can be used by law enforcement professionals to identify, assess, and manage the risks of targeted violence and its potential perpetrators” (Fein,Vossekuil, and Holden, 1995, p. 5).

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